The uncredited role or cameo has been around as long as cinema has existed. It serves many functions, sometimes to surprise and delight of the audience by bringing in a well-known face in an unexpected way. Other times, it serves to hide the true nature of a role, and sets up a reveal. Other times still, it provides shorthand for characterization. And in some cases, it’s just a funny in-joke—or the actor owed his friend a favor. Either way, they can often transform and elevate a film into something better, and in recent years we’ve had some corkers. So, in order, here are my picks for the top 25 uncredited roles and cameos of modern times.
Please note: scroll below at your own peril, as some of these are surprise cameos.
Right then. Let’s get started…
25. Matt Damon – Interstellar
There was something almost inevitable about that life support pod opening up and revealing Matt Damon, wasn’t there? His surprise ‘cameo’ in Interstellarwas one of the best things in an at times ponderous film (one that seems loved and, er, ‘not loved’ in fairly equal measure), even if his plan didn’t really make a whole lot of sense. Damon played brilliantly against type as a very unheroic pioneer who had been driven mad by loneliness and now wanted to get the hell back home rather than save humanity. Which after all, is probably what the majority of us would have done had we landed on that icy waste of a planet.
24. Jim Parsons – The Muppets
A surefire sign that you’ve made the right choice in a cameo is when your appearance raises the roof with an audience. Such was my experience while watching The Muppets and having Jim Parsons appear as human Walter. The crowd literally cheered and clapped. It’s the perfect merging of a timeless comedy classic with the biggest sitcom of the day.
23. Patrick Stewart & Ian McKellen – The Wolverine
The very best kinds of cameos and uncredited roles produce an electric moment in a film, which lifts the audience. Having the two theatrical knights return as their iconic X-Men characters certainly did this. While The Wolverine was a pretty decent solo effort from everyone’s favorite hairy Canadian mutant, it was the post-credits scene that stole the limelight and paved the way for X-Men: Days Of Future Past, one of the better non-Marvel superhero films of recent times.
22. Natalie Portman – The Darjeeling Limited
Here’s a role which really only makes complete sense when you watch the brilliant short “Hotel Chevalier” that accompanies Wes Anderson’s underrated 2007 effort. Natalie Portman makes a fleeting appearance toward the end of TheDarjeeling Limitedas the camera pans along the sleeper train. But even that brief glimpse is enough to make you wonder at what lurks behind the façade. Even more than any of his other efforts, The Darjeeling Limitedis all about what is not said to give meaning to the characters’ motivations. Having Portman play this unnamed ghost makes you re-evaluate Jason Schwartzmann’s troubled Jack instantly.
21. Brad Pitt & Matt Damon – Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Here is another Matt Damon moment, but one that is the antithesis of his Interstellar role. In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Damon and Brad Pitt show up to lend a bit of star power to pal George Clooney’s frankly brilliant directorial debut during a fun dating game sequence. It’s a literal pan across the two mega-stars as they take part as eligible bachelors. When they’re dismissed in favor of the rather less movie-star good looking bachelor number three, the look Sam Rockwell gives is totally for the audience watching the film, rather than the one in the studio. It’s Clooney having fun directing and making us have some too.
20. Jason Statham – Collateral
Of course we had to feature the Stath. While I was tempted to pick his post-credits turn in the last Fast & Furious, I think it’s this one from earlier on his career that’s better. Rather than a knowing nod at his newfound star power and glimpse into the future of the series, this is almost like a subtle acknowledgment of The Transporter films, as the Stath delivers a suitcase to Tom Cruise’s hitman. It’s a silent, brooding, and effortlessly conducted affair on both parts and sets up Cruise as someone not to fuck with; he knows how to get things done – the perfect way to use a cameo role.
19. Danny Pudi – Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I like to think this really is Abed.
18. David Bowie – Zoolander
David Bowie playing David Bowie, official walk-off judge, tells you everything you need to know about Zoolander. It’s sublime, inspired, and utterly ridiculous. The fact that Bowie plays it all totally serious just adds to the heightened sense of bizarre.
17. Glenn Close – Hook
Speaking of bizarre, this has to be the weirdest entry on the list. Glenn Close playing a man pirate in Spielberg’s not that good, but still beloved, Peter Pan adventure. Words can’t really do it justice, so I’ll just let you have a look.
Even more oddly though, Close is a dead live-action ringer for the surprisingly curvaceous pirate from Aardmans’ brilliant The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists.
16. Sean Connery – Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
I loved this film as a kid, but never really got why my brothers loved it so much when King Richard turned up at the end. Of course, I knew he was important, but I didn’t know why. Then I grew up, re-watched the film, and got it. James Bond was only the King of England too!
In a silly yet loveable film, it’s a perfectly cast part. It adds to this glitzy, over-the-top Hollywood version of the Robin Hood myth, and provides a thrill to cap off the finale.
15. Hugh Jackman – X-Men: First Class
Sometimes an uncredited role is so brilliantly obvious that you cannot believe it was unexpected. Such was Hugh Jackman’s cameo as Wolverine in Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class. With the film being a prequel, you were promised an all-new cast of mutants. Even though Wolverine was around then, you knew he wouldn’t run into the X-Men for another few decades. But how about having young Charles and Erik run into him in a bar while searching for mutants? Of course, there’s only one reaction ‘60s Wolverine would give them.
14. Michael Bay – Mystery Men
In a scene where Bay pokes fun at his detractors, he appears at a party in the villainous Frankenstein Casanova’s lair as a frat boy. Uttering the immortal line, “Dude, can we bring the brewskis?” Bay’s role is perfect in a film that makes you think it’s going for the obvious joke but is actually being very clever about it.
13. Robert De Niro – American Hustle
De Niro’s best role in years. As the camera tracks into a grimy casino, you’re not quite sure who you’re about to meet. Enter a balding De Niro, with all the weight of past roles behind him. It sets up audience expectations with none of the heavy lifting a script has to do to convince you of someone’s reputation, thereby selling his mobster before a single word is uttered.
12. Cate Blanchett – Hot Fuzz
Cast as the long-suffering Janine, Cate Blanchett’s eyes were the only asset the Hollywood A-Lister brought to this role. The sort of dumb but brilliant joke that Wright and Pegg thrive upon, they cast one of the most beautiful acting talents in the world and then hid her face. But at least they put her in one of the funniest scenes in the film.
11. Dan Aykroyd – Casper
It’s everything you want in a cameo – instant callback to an iconic character riffing off their most famous line in a perfect context. While kids watching this film probably wouldn’t have gotten the reference, all their parents taking them would have had huge smiles on their faces.
10. Christian Slater – Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
While many will point to the mega cameos from Goldmember, it’s this more understated performance from Slater in the first (and best) Austin Powers that’s the funniest of the many uncredited performances in the film. The sheer absurdity of it just kills me every time. Fans of Christian Slater cameos will also love his turn in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which he got at the height of his young Hollywood fame. Being a Star Trek fan, I love the fact that the Slater is one too.
9. Michael Cera – This Is The End
Who’d have thought that of the similarly titled apocalyptic comedies, This Is The Endand The World’s End, that it would be Seth Rogen and James Franco’s effort that would prove superior for some? Certainly not me. Part of its charm was knowing exactly what to do with its endless celebrity cameos. Rather than any sort of knowing winks, or parading the goods, it instead treated them like pieces of cannon fodder, ripe for the end times. Witness Michael Cera slaying his bland nice guy image as a coke snorting jackass before being slayed himself into the pits of Hell.
8. Edward Norton – Kingdom Of Heaven
I’m going to put this out here: Ed Norton’s turn as the leper King Baldwin IV in Ridley Scott’s epic Kingdom of Heaven is one of his best performances ever. And the fact he does it all from behind gold and silver masks makes it all the more impressive – it’s his voice and posture alone that does the work. One of the historical incongruities of the time was how this leprous young king was able to hold the rival Crusader states together. With Norton’s performance, especially his moments where he unleashes his magisterial power, you can fully believe why the unrefined hulking knights of the day would bow to him.
7. Will Ferrell – Wedding Crashers
It’s not a brilliant film by any means, but for a brief period, Ferrell’s ultimate crasher who’s gone too far lights up the experience. Far funnier than anything Vince Vaughn or Owen Wilson manage to bring to the table, Ferrell demonstrates why his improvisation game can raise so many smiles when used in the right way. He’s really the only quotable thing in the film.
6. Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise – 21 Jump Street
In a film which seemed a genuinely surprising comic treat when it was released (with hindsight, how could we have ever doubted Lord and Miller?), one of the finest moments of subverting audience expectations, while at the same time delighting them, was the appearance of Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise as Tom Hanson and Doug Penhall, still undercover after all these years.
And what do you do when one of the planet’s biggest stars returns to the role that launched his glittering career? Well if you’re Lord and Miller, you have him brutally gunned down within moments.
5. Robin Williams – Dead Again
An oft-forgotten psychological thriller, Dead Again features a pair of great lead performances from Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson as two people who may have shared a past life experience. But the true gem in the film is Robin Williams‘ brief appearance as a disgraced psychiatrist working as a shelf stacker. It’s vintage Williams, all manic yet focused energy as he spits rapidfire advice. Branagh and Thompson are all cheekbones and stunning looks, but you simply can’t take your eyes off of Robin.
4. Tom Cruise – Tropic Thunder
For Tom Cruise, this uncredited role as grotesque studio exec Les Grossman couldn’t have come at a better time. For years the golden boy of Hollywood, Cruise’s image was starting to come under sustained fire. Scientology, odd behavior, and marriage rumors all tarnished his stage-managed ‘wholesome’ leading man image. He also hadn’t really displayed any of his earlier comedy chops for years. So the chance to reinvent yourself by playing a foul-mouthed character that also took aim at the execs who were now a bit wary of you, and steal a comedy film featuring the combined talents of Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Robert Downey Jr., must have seemed Heaven sent (or is that Thetan sent?).
3. Samuel L. Jackson – Iron Man
The most important uncredited role of recent years? While the majority of them are in-jokes to the audience, or an actor seeking to surprise people, this post-credits stinger effectively launched an unstoppable franchise machine that has redefined the way Hollywood does blockbusters. The reign of Marvel truly started with Samuel L. Jackson popping up and talking about the Avengers Initiative. Suddenly, anything was possible.
2. Alec Baldwin – Glengarry Glen Ross
The epitome of all uncredited roles. It’s so good that you forget he’s not even in the damn cast proper, and that he has one scene. But what a scene. Proof that the right role, no matter how small, can make your career forever.
1. Kevin Spacey – Seven
Surely the greatest uncredited role in modern movie history? The level of detail involved in producing an unsettling nightmare of a film is legendary with John Doe’s hundreds of notebooks being made up of things including excerpts from suicide notes being just one. Extending to this was Spacey’s total dedication to his nameless, unknowable serial killer. Having his name plastered all over the place would have spoiled the mystery.
Instead, having Spacey lurking off-screen before finally revealing himself made John Doe one of the most fully formed characters (rather than actor playing a character) of the ‘90s, and the ultimate representation of evil.